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New Study Finds 'Troubling Trend' Of Lead In Drinking Water Across Philadelphia Public Schools

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – A new report shows a majority of Philadelphia public schools have contaminated drinking water. Out of 1,900 water outlets tested within the district, 61% of them tested positive for lead.

Eyewitness News' Natasha Brown spoke with local school officials who are trying to get the lead out.

A comprehensive study conducted by a nonpartisan advocacy organization has uncovered what it's calling "startling and dangerous" levels of lead in drinking water throughout Philadelphia schools.

"Our new study which is based on self-reported data by the Philadelphia School District shows lead in 61% of drinking outlets tested across the district," Emma Horst-Martz, of PennPIRG Education Fund, said. "That is unacceptable."

PennPIRG Education Fund, the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center, along with the Black Church Center for Justice unveiled the findings of their study just outside of the Philadelphia School District headquarters on Wednesday morning.

"We looked at school district's own data, about 1,900 water outlets taken since 2018, from 65 separate school buildings across the district," Horst-Martz said.

Lead Free Schools Philly is demanding that the district address their concerns, with the backing of Councilmember Derrick Greene helping to lead the charge.

"We've done things like brought some modern hydration systems, we now have this testing, but we've got to do more. The data was the first step. Now, we need to do the right step and make sure we get lead out of our schools," Greene said.

The study showed the highest lead test levels were found at Duckrey Elementary in North Philly, Logan Elementary in Germantown, and Anderson in West Philly.

"All of these are also hundreds of times above Philadelphia's legal limit for lead," David Masur with PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center said

Parents are shocked and understandably concerned.

"When your kids are going to school you expect them to be safe, you expect them to be taken care of, and those to me are fundamental things parents should not be worrying about," parent Cristina Turchiano said.

The school district responded to the report calling it inaccurate. They issued the following statement:

The data and report issued today by PennPIRG is not an accurate reflection of the water quality that students and staff in our District are accessing each and every day. The School District of Philadelphia is fully committed to supporting clean, safe and welcoming learning environments for every student and staff member – and that includes providing access to drinking water which meets the City of Philadelphia's rigorous lead-in-water regulations, and proactively preventing access to any drinking water in any District-owned building that does not meet City of Philadelphia standards. In the event that a water outlet tests at or above 10 ppb, the City of Philadelphia's required threshold for school drinking water, which is significantly more strict than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) threshold of 20 ppb, the outlet is immediately shut down. The District closes these outlets, both because it is required under City and EPA regulations, and to prevent students or staff from using or ingesting contaminated water.

The District has an ongoing and comprehensive safe water testing program that launched in 2016. All 269 District-owned buildings were sampled once through 2017, and all water outlets that did not meet the City's standards were turned off and remediation actions were implemented. The second cycle of sampling began in April 2019, with a planned completion timing in April 2023 in alignment with the City's five-year cycle requirements. The District paused sampling while school buildings were closed to in-person learning due to COVID-19 because of the lack of water movement in our school buildings would have created sample results inconsistent with regular water use; and would have failed to capture accurate sampling results. The District resumed testing in April 2021 in school buildings that were occupied, focusing first on elementary schools. We are still in the five-year cycle requirement and will continue inspecting and sampling water in every school.

The Penn PIRG report calls for the increased use of hydration stations, but fails to acknowledge their use in the same schools highlighted in their report. The District aims to have a minimum of one filtered hydration station per 100 students, per floor in its 269 District-owned school buildings. More than 1,320 hydration stations have been installed to date, and more are being installed as we receive them. These purified drinking sources are tested and have consistently shown lead levels which are safer than that required by City regulations. The District will continue its existing efforts to place hydration stations within easy access to all staff and students.

The District has had prior conversations with PennPIRG to address their concerns, and is deeply disappointed by their mischaracterization of water quality in our District buildings.

An interactive web page was also launched along with the report. That resource will allow community members to easily find the test results for their neighborhood schools. This can be found at pennpirg.Org/phillyleadmap.

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